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Stuart Reid’s The Lumumba Plot: the secret history of the CIA and a Cold War assassination (2023) should be seen as the first publication to shed new light on the Congo crisis (1960-1961) since a Belgian parliamentary committee published a report on the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first prime minister, more than two decades ago.

Let’s briefly review the main points. In July 1960, shortly after nationalist Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba had expelled racist white officers from the Congolese army, Belgian troops invaded the former colony. The copper-rich province of Katanga, which accounted for 70% of the country’s income, was separated from central power with the help of the Belgians.

Lumumba called for UN intervention to restore order. A force of blue helmets was deployed, but it came under the control of the United States, which quickly adopted Belgium’s objective: to replace Lumumba’s government with a docile one. With the decisive help of the UN, Lumumba was deposed. Chief of Staff Mobutu dismissed parliament and locked up the deposed prime minister. The CIA and Belgian military personnel temporarily suspended their plans to assassinate Lumumba.

At the beginning of 1961, Lumumba’s supporters organised an unexpected and overwhelming military offensive. The soldiers guarding Lumumba demanded his release. Washington and Brussels panicked. The Belgians, who controlled procedures in the capital, Leopoldville, and in Katanga, organised Lumumba’s transfer to Katanga, where he was killed shortly after his arrival.

It was not until 1965, after a series of rebellions had been crushed by a Belgian-American intervention force, that Mobutu succeeded in establishing a stable pro-Western dictatorship.

The overthrow of Lumumba’s government and the coup d’état of General Mobutu are undoubtedly one of the best documented and analysed international crises of the last century, largely thanks to a report of the American Senate (1975), the publication of  The Assassination of Lumumba (1999), which triggered the report of the Belgian Parliament (2001), and  additional research into the death of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld.

Unsurprisingly, The Lumumba Plot, a 620-page brick, contains no new elements that add anything substantial to what we already know. This should not be a problem, on condition that the book provides new information on the dynamics of this complex crisis marked by military interventions, the deployment of a UN force, a military coup and secessions, with the threat of a Cold War between Washington and Moscow in the background.

However, the book falls short.

A host of anecdotes…

Stuart Reid is an excellent writer and his researchers have unearthed a wealth of anecdotes, conversations between actors and post factum opinions that bring the story of the Congo crisis to life. The reader has the impression of looking over the shoulders of the protagonists. For example, on the meeting where US President Eisenhower made remarks that were interpreted by the CIA as an order to kill Lumumba: Eisenhower,

entered the Cabinet Room of the White House, a high-ceilinged room next to the Oval Office, with a fireplace, a portrait of George Washington and a view of the Rose Garden through arched windows. He sat down in the leather armchair reserved for him, slightly larger than the others, and opened the weekly meeting of the National Security Council. Twenty other men, including the director of the CIA and the secretaries of defence, treasury and commerce, joined him around the massive mahogany table. At one point, Eisenhower said a few words about Lumumba. Whatever the exact wording, …[the] message that day was pretty clear: “will no one rid me of this turbulent prime minister?” Eisenhower’s directive did not seem to weigh heavily on his conscience. Having just become the first American president to order the assassination of a foreign leader, he went to the whites-only Burning Tree Club in Bethesda, Maryland, to play eighteen holes of golf with his son and grandson.

… but where is the role of the United Nations in the crisis?

These details and anecdotes, the many digressions and reflections of the players involved, give the impression of an in-depth and complete analysis. But the dynamics and internal coherence of the Congolese crisis remain hidden.

Is it not strange that Stuart Reid does not cite the Security Council resolution that defines the mandate of the peacekeeping force sent to the Congo after Kinshasa requested UN intervention to end the Belgian invasion of the country? As well as calling for the withdrawal of Belgian troops from the Congo, the mandate unequivocally states that the UN will provide military assistance to the Lumumba government so that its armed forces can “fully discharge their duties”.

This omission masks the UN’s fundamentally biased action in the Congo in favour of opponents of the Lumumba government, such as the Katangese secessionists and coup leader Mobutu. Without the cover of the UN intervention in the Congo, Belgium and the United States would have found it much more difficult to achieve their central objective: to replace the Lumumba government with a docile Western regime.

There are other examples, and omissions, in the book.

Crucial documents from the UN archives on the role of Secretary General Hammarskjöld in the liquidation of Patrice Lumumba are not cited. After Mobutu’s military coup and the closure of the Congolese parliament (with the help of the United States and the UN), Patrice Lumumba left the capital and tried to join his supporters in the north-east of the country. Pursued by Mobutu’s soldiers, Hammarskjöld’s subordinates ordered the UN peacekeepers on the ground not to place the deposed prime minister under protection. A copy of this order was sent to UN headquarters in New York. An officer of the Ghanaian UN peacekeepers, obeying the order, refused to place Lumumba under protection, which directly led to Mobutu’s soldiers capture of the deposed Prime Minister. This decision led to Lumumba’s imprisonment in what was to become his death cell. A fatal decision taken with Hammarskjöld’s approval, and one that Hammarskjöld kept silent about at a meeting of the Security Council, where he declared that the UN had no way of offering Lumumba protection.

Hammarskjöld’s role in the crisis – and that of his four closest advisers in what was known as ‘The Congo Club’ – remains underexposed in Reid’s book, but the skewed sketch of Lumumba’s personality is no less problematic. The Lumumba Plot contains an enormous number of judgements about the Congolese prime minister by US and UN personnel active in the fight against the Congolese government and its nationalist leader. Almost all of these opinions are negative, giving the reader a very one-sided view of the man behind the myth. The book does not revive Lumumba in the flesh, as he really was, but only as he was presented in the war rhetoric of the time. A prime minister whom a Belgian journalist said in retrospect that he had probably been attacked with more fury in the mainstream press than Hitler.

… and Belgium?

Even more worryingly, Stuart Reid almost completely ignores the role of the main protagonists in the Congolese crisis. Belgian ministers, diplomats, secret agents, military officers, and civil servants have either disappeared from the story or are given secondary roles. Of the five Belgian government emissaries who played a central role in the crisis – colonels Marlière and Vandewalle, secret agent Lahaye, major Loos and diplomat Davignon –  Vandewalle is mentioned once and Marlière four times, but only in the endnotes; the other three are not mentioned at all!

Compare these four mentions of Belgians with the predominance of CIA agents Devlin, Gottlieb and O’Donnell in the book: they are mentioned 463, 51 and 23 times respectively! This huge blind spot in  the book is intentional. Of the 30 people interviewed by Reid and his researchers, 21 are linked to the State Department and the CIA; the others are Africans. No Belgians were interviewed!

Apart from a reference to the order given by the Belgian Minister for African Affairs to his emissaries to “eliminate definitively” Lumumba and a description of the role of low-ranking Belgian officers in Lumumba’s execution, Belgium’s role remains hidden from the reader.

So many questions are not answered, yet they are at the heart of any serious consideration of the murder of Lumumba.

What about the Belgian soldiers who dressed up in Katangese uniforms to build and lead the Katangese army? What about the Belgian-American plan to arm Lumumba’s opponents for a (failed) assassination attempt? Belgian King Baudouin’s approval of an assassination plot against Lumumba? Or the order given by the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs to his emissaries in Congo to ‘neutralise Lumumba’? And the proposal by the Belgian Minister for African Affairs to send a hitman to assassinate Lumumba? The order given by the same minister to his subordinates in the secessionist state of Katanga, under Belgian control, to accept Lumumba’s transfer to that province, which would he knew would mean his death? What about the Belgian senior officers and senior civil servants in Katanga who were kept informed of Lumumba’s torture and murder by their Belgian subordinates, but who looked the other way, knowing the intentions of the King of Belgium and senior Belgian ministers?

None of these facts, none of these questions, are analysed as being fundamental for an understanding of the drama in progress.

A settling of scores “between Africans”?

Reid indicates in the subtitle of his book that he aims to bring to life the CIA’s secret history of the crisis. But this is not possible without integrating the CIA’s role into the full picture. To fill the gap created by the ousting of the dominant Belgian factor, the author inflates the role of the CIA’s Congo station chief, Larry Devlin. Reid writes that Mobutu’s inner circle told Devlin that Lumumba would be transferred to his sworn enemies in Katanga. Reid correctly writes that in this way “the dirty work [would be] outsourced”, and continues: “Given his influence (…), there was every reason to believe that he could have persuaded them to abandon their plan. Devlin did not. In fact, in the context of his close relationship with Mobutu and his retinue, his failure to protest could only have been interpreted as a green light. This silence sealed Lumumba’s fate”.

The assassination thus became a Congolese affair, carried out under the approving eye of the CIA. This is the dominant story – the great lie –  told for decades about the Congo crisis, according to which the assassination was “a settling of scores between Africans”, albeit with Devlin’s blessing. This story is recycled once more in Reid’s book.

The omission of Belgian responsibility for the fall of the Congolese government and the assassination of the prime minister is no coincidence. Reid’s book has the same flaws as the report of the Church Commission (US Senate, 1975) and the report of the Belgian Lumumba Parliamentary Commission (2001). Out of respect for their NATO partner, the Americans leave out Belgium’s role, while Brussels does the same with Washington’s role. And the role of the United Nations leadership, which have provided and provides essential services to the Western interventions since 1945, is largely obscured in these reports.

But how can a murder be properly analysed when four parties are involved (Belgians, Americans, UN leaders and Congolese), but the main party is kept in the dark and the role of another is played down? No examining magistrate would get away with it. Yet that is Stuart Reid’s approach. Perhaps this is because the author is the Executive Editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, published by the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank operating at the heart of the Washington establishment?

This article was first published by ROAPE.